How to Win More at Rock-Paper-Scissors (According to Science)

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There are a few time-honored methods for settling disputes: Good ol’ fashion fisticuffs are a fairly noble method, but you get all hurt and bruisy and that’s usually not a wise career move. Then there’s always coin flipping, but that usually requires the presence of a coin, which can be annoying to carry around. And aside from arm wrestling, thumb wrestling, pulling straws, picking numbers, six-sided dice, twelve-sided dice, smartphone apps, foot races, video games, or—you know—talking it out, the only real way to settle a modern day quarrel is to play a respectable game of rock-paper-scissors.

In theory, if you’re better at rock-paper-scissors than anyone else, you get your way more. And getting your way is usually a good thing. So, if you’re interested in getting your way more, a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B might be of use to you.

They tested 45 subjects—some blindfolded, some not—and found that people subconsciously copy the movements of their opponents. Using financial incentives that were given out when a player either won a game or came to a draw, administrators found that when non-blindfolded players played blindfolded players, the seeing folks were achieving draws at a much, much higher rate, even if it was in their interest not to.

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Apparently, this is something embedded in our scientific makeup.

“From the moment we’re born, we are frequently exposed to situations where performing an action accurately predicts seeing the same action, or vice versa. Parents seemingly can’t help but imitate the facial expressions of their newborns— smiling, sticking their tongues out and so on,” says Richard Cook, the lead author of the paper from the UCL Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Science. “This experience causes the impulse to imitate to become so ingrained it is often subconscious, for example when one person starts tapping their foot in a waiting room it is not uncommon for the whole room to start tapping their feet without thinking.”

It’s called automatic imitation, which Cook states is something that’s a couple of milliseconds faster than non-imitative responses; you’re predisposed to mimic what your opponent is doing, and vice-versa.

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So how can you win more at rock-paper-scissors? Well, knowing that your opponent will unconsciously be copying you, you can close your eyes to avoid being psyched out yourself. Also, males have a tendency to throw out rock on their first try, so if you’re playing a guy, try closing your eyes and throwing out paper. Science and statistics are on your side! Unless, you know, your opponent reads this post too, then he might try to psych you out by going scissors or something. Or, you could start playing this:


[via Science Daily]

Chris Gayomali is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @chrigz, on Facebook, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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